© Copyright by Mariah Stone.
Dunollie Castle, Lorne, Scotland, 1296
The fiery cross burned.
Boom. Boom. Boom. The sound of hundreds of palms beating against drums reverberated in Craig Cambel’s chest, his heart slamming with the rhythm.
Behind him waited two hundred Cambel clansmen. Every single one had answered the ancient call the cross in flames which stood next to the clan chief’s horse.
The call to bloodshed.
The call to restore lost honor.
The call to rescue a loved one.
Dunollie Castle loomed before Craig, the seat of the MacDougall clan. It had four curtain walls, a gate right in front of the Cambels, and a simple square tower of three floors built into the right corner. On the roof and on the walls, archers stood at the ready, strings taut, arrows pointed at Craig and his men.
But Cambel fire arrows prepared to answer. The battering ram was in place before the gate. Long siege ladders, some repaired, some newly constructed, held tightly.
Sir Colin Cambel, the chief of the clan and Craig’s grandfather, raised one arm, and the drums silenced as one.
“John MacDougall!” His cry carried far, into the leaden sky, echoing from the rocks and the walls. “Show yerself!”
Archers shifted up on the roof, giving way. A man appeared between them.
“Cambel,” he cried. “Did ye come to return my lands?”
“The lands were granted to me by King John Balliol and are nae yers no more.”
“Aye, ye were too eager to accept them. Dinna forget ye’re still my vassal.”
“Seems ’tis ye who forgets things. Things like honor. Things like keeping yer word. Things like protecting yer vassals.”
“I owe no protection to thieves.”
“Thieves?” Sir Colin spat on the ground. “How dare ye. Give me back my granddaughter. And if ye know what is good for ye, give me yer bastart of a son who canna take a lass’s nae for an answer. I will teach him about honor. Clearly, his own father failed to do so.”
Craig’s hand clenched around the handle of his claymore. He remembered the day when his sister Marjorie had disappeared. She had gone out of the castle with her maid to gather herbs for the kitchen. After a while, the maid had run back alone, screaming, trembling, a deep cut on her cheek.
It took the Cambels two sennights of searching and questioning to learn who’d taken her.
Their laird’s son.
Craig’s jaw tightened, the need to find the bastart and free his sister stinging.
John MacDougall was silent for a moment. “If ye want yer granddaughter, Sir Colin, ye must come and take her. She is my son’s intended, and I wilna give her back until my son wants her gone.”
Silence fell on the shore of Oban Bay. Craig knew in his bones that this day would not end without spilled blood.
It remained to be seen if Marjorie was harmed or not.
A growl of fury was born in Craig’s gut, rose up his throat, and carried through the field. The MacDougalls looked at him. Cambel men tensed, ready to launch at the signal.
“If yer son touched a hair on her head…” Craig heard his own voice carry through the air. “I will make it my life’s mission to make his death long and painful.”
His family roared. His father on the horse beside him, his two stepbrothers, his grandfather, his uncles, and his cousins were all here. The rest of the clan followed, their axes and swords high in the air. The thundering returned—not of the drums this time, but of weapons against shields.
“Cruachan!” Sir Colin called the Cambel battle cry, and the clan picked it up. The word ran through the field in a rumble and united them all as one.
Death might await them, but they would die for their kin. For what was right.
And Craig would gladly die saving his sister.
They launched. Shielding themselves from the arrows raining over them like hail, they came at the tower. Their own archers sent fire arrows up into the castle, and the first ones found wood among the stones.
Death picked its victims among the Cambels. Warriors cried in pain. Flesh tore. The iron tang of blood hung in the air, spurring Craig’s fury and fear.
Craig ran forward and finally reached the castle wall.
The ram beat against the gate. The ladders were erected, but the enemy pushed them back, and some of them fell. Others stood, and his men began climbing.
Craig’s pulse beat violently against his temples. He looked to the left and to the right, trying to see past his clansmen. How could he sneak into the castle without the enemy noticing?
Holding his shield above his head, he ran to his right, along the line of his clansmen who were climbing the siege ladders. The chief’s plan was to storm the front and western walls, both low. So that the MacDougalls’ attention would in those locations.
He turned the corner and ran along the western wall of the tower, which led into the curtain wall. He stopped under three windows, one on each floor.
So far, no one from the tower had noticed him. All of the archers were looking to where most of his clansmen were.
And Craig was a good climber.
He put his shield on his back, took out his two climbing knives and looked up. He just needed to make it to the lowest window.
“This is just a steep mountain,” he muttered to himself. “Ye’ve climbed steep rocks dozens of times.”
This is for Marjorie.
The grooves between the stones were perfect for his knives. He drove the knife into the first slit, and the gesture brought satisfaction, almost like piercing a MacDougall in the heart.
He pulled himself up with one arm and dug the second knife in higher.
He pulled himself up again, the muscles of his shoulder, the biceps of his arm singing with the strain, his fury finding a small relief. Another hit, higher, sand and dust pouring from the hole. The third one—
Someone yelled high above, and an arrow swooshed by him, hitting the ground.
He looked up. Men on the roof aimed their arrows at him.
Another arrow brushed against his shoulder.
He hurried, stabbing the wall faster and pulling himself up. Something sharp burned his shoulder—one arrow had scratched him.
He was almost at the window. Another stab of the wall, and he was pulling himself up the small ledge of the windowsill. He put the knife into the slit between the wooden shutters and pushed the latch up. It gave, and the shutters flew open.
Craig peered inside. His muscles burned from the tension of the climb. It was a bedchamber. The shadow of a person was cast from the candle flickering slowly in the corner. Someone stood against the wall to the right of the window.
Craig took a small rock that cracked out of the wall and threw it into the room.
A wooden plank swooshed past the window. He pushed himself up, and into the room. Landing, he grabbed the attacker—a woman—and clasped her arms behind her back.
He put the knife to her throat.
“Marjorie Cambel,” he said. “Where is she?”
The woman must have been John MacDougall’s wife. In the corner by the bed, huddled children. He looked around. There was no one else.
“Where is she?” he repeated, louder, pressing the blade tighter. “I dinna mean ye harm, I came for my sister.”
The woman closed her eyes tight. “Third floor,” she said. “Chamber facing east. Like this one.”
He released her, took out his claymore from the sheath on his back and opened the door slightly, peering into the hallway.
Could he trust the woman’s words? What if she sent him up so that he would meet the most resistance?
Well, Craig was going to find out.
He heard heavy footsteps down the hall. The ram battered the wooden gate.
He quickly climbed the narrow stairs and peered from behind the corner of the stairwell.
Two guards ran towards him. Sword meeting sword and shield, he began the dance he had been trained for since he could hold a weapon. Clank. Swoosh. Bang. One was down, holding a gash in his side, the other knocked unconscious.
Craig ran up the next flight of stairs.
The cries from the roof were louder on the third story. The scent of smoke filled his nostrils. The wooden roof must be on fire—he needed to hurry to get Marjorie out before flames engulfed the top floor.
He stepped into the hallway, quietly. One guard stood before the door to the bedroom. He turned to Craig. Their eyes locked. The man had just raised his sword when Craig attacked, hitting him with his shield. A second guard came from the stairs, and Craig met him with the claymore, slashing the man’s thigh.
More came at him, but downstairs a loud bash pierced the air, and the walls reverberated. Had his people made it through the gate? He ducked from the guard’s sword and pierced him in the gut.
As the man fell, Craig hurried to the door that led to the west. He opened it—and was met with a sword piercing his side.
Pain blinded him, his own scream filled his body. The floor shifted, dizziness filling his head.
He slashed back, missing the attacker. He fell on one knee and lifted his claymore to meet the sword. Pushing back, he stood up.
“Ye pig,” Craig spat.
On the bed, a pale figure lay, dark hair spilled on the pillows, her face in the shadows. But he’d recognize his sister anywhere. Her bare leg, covered with bruises and scratches, caked blood on her inner thigh, was shamelessly visible.
Was she dead?
“What did ye do to her?” Craig cried.
“Only what she deserved with a willful character like that!” Alasdair snarled.
Roaring, Craig attacked again. But Alasdair was a much better warrior than any of his guards—he deflected, then went at Craig again, hammering at his sword. Craig’s claymore met Alasdair’s, but Craig was weaker, the pain in his side sucking away his strength.
“Ye will die, ye maggot!” Craig spat through his clenched teeth into the MacDougall’s face.
Alasdair’s claymore pressed against Craig’s, and finding strength deep in his soul, he pushed back. Alasdair swayed and stepped back, and that was enough. With one swift movement, aiming for the heart, Craig thrust his weapon. Alasdair screamed and stood, surprise mixed with pain on his face. Craig removed his sword, and the man collapsed to the floor.
Beyond the door, the sound of a skirmish grew louder.
Good. They were inside the tower.
Craig fell on his knees by Marjorie’s side, and the blood stood still in his veins. Her chest was rising and falling, although weakly. Her face was distorted—cut and bruised. One eye was swollen completely shut, the skin red and purple. Her lip was cut, and her nose looked broken. Her dress was torn and dirty. She was asleep. Or maybe unconscious.
“Marjorie,” Craig whispered and brushed his hand against her hair.
She opened her eyes, just a little, and looked at him. Tears welled in her eyes, and a barely visible smile touched her lips.
“Brother,” she croaked.
The door flew open, and his cousin Ian stepped in, his face bruised and sprayed with blood, his leine croich—a long, heavily quilted coat—cut and torn and soaked in blood.
“I found her,” Craig said.
“Good,” Ian said. “Let us go. The way is clear.”
Craig wrapped his sister in the blanket and picked her up. She seemed so tiny and it felt like she weighed nothing. As he stepped into the hallway with her in his arms, men stopped fighting and looked at him. There was his father, whose face wrinkled in pain as he saw his daughter. His uncle Neil and his sons. Sorrow and fury shone in their eyes.
Ian went before him down the stairs, looking around the corners for danger, his sword atilt. But as Craig walked down, the fighting stopped on the lower floor as well.
When he finally walked out into the clear daylight, blood covered the grass, making it look purple.
Then he saw a painfully familiar face among the slain warriors on the ground.
Sir Colin Cambel.
Craig came to him and fell to his knees, Marjorie still in his arms. He took his grandfather’s hand in his and squeezed it. A tear fell down his cheek.
Ian’s hand lay on his shoulder.
“I have her, Sir Colin,” Craig said. “Yer death did not come in vain. And I swear on yer dead body, on yer heart, that I will never again trust a MacDougall. And never again will I let a Cambel fall prey to their betrayal.”
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